The golden past has a future

Happy days aren’t here to stay, and that’s why audiences and writers love them.

It’s a little theory of mine that the programmes set in the past that we love the most remind us or create an idealised, cherry picked version of the past we wish we had.

Mad Men and Pan Am are both US series set in a different time; not just the 1960s, but the time when the US knew its place in the world – at the top.

Happy Days have been around for a while
These Happy Days aren't yours or mine, but we still like them

It was a time when nowhere came close to the US in terms of standard of living, and where dollar bills (and the bill holders) were welcome everywhere.

These days – and no offence to my American friends – it’s not quite the same. Dollars are still welcome, but not as they used to be, the greenback gets the cold shoulder in most of Europe now we have the euro (for now) and the US doesn’t just have its recently rich Atlantic cousins to compete with but those across the Pacific and beyond the Gulf of Mexico too.

Mad Men and Pan Am are a world of plenty and confidence, where jet travel didn’t mean worries or embarrassments of airport security. Both programmes had conflict – largely about women’s place in society – but women’s rights today aren’t contentious or uncomfortable in the way that being told things haven’t got better.

Airport security would have a fit at this these days

Yet I suspect that if these shows’ conflicts were about the wealth un-American nations or other uncomfortable issues then it’d be different.

It’s not just the Americans – there’s a film is about Romania’s ‘Golden Age‘, while the 1973 of Life on Mars is a time when health & safety (paying for Daily Mail columnists since the 1970s) didn’t really exist, work stopped when pubs opened and smoking inside was cool (a laΒ Mad Men).

America in the 1960s were glamourous and prosperous, and even the threat of global thermonuclear war can be ignored as we smugly know that that never happened and most viewers are too young to recall the threat.

My prediction is that the next Golden Age of TV series will be the 1990s. An age of peace and prosperity, the last huzzah of the West and the end of history because the whole world was going to follow us – not shove us out the way or even overtake us. The 1990s is also the decade when tomorrow’s TV producers grew up.

So here’s a toast to the golden 1990s – long may they prosper and be cool, in the eternal era of television. But only the good bits.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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